The late ’80s and early 19900s were the golden age for erotic thrillers. From Jagged Edge to Basic Instinct to The Last Seduction, the genre flourished in an age when the box office was driven by sex, violence, and just how far filmmakers could push the R rating. The best of these movies offered titillation with a subtle dose of social commentary and female empowerment. The worst simply used gratuitous nudity as an excuse to sell a shopworn plot.
Adrian Lyne was the master of this genre. His most famous film, 1987’s Fatal Attraction, told the tale of an unfaithful husband and the undoing of his mistress. A kid was kidnapped, a bunny was boiled, and the wife got revenge in a cheap yet effective finale that is still talked about today. His best film, 2002’s Unfaithful, dug deeper into a marriage almost undone by a momentary impulse of desire. His newest film, Deep Water, is his first in 20 years, and seems to possess his usual obsessions with love and infidelity in a bourgeois marriage. Yet unlike his other films, Deep Water lacks the polish, logic, or coherence that made his other works so entertaining (and occasionally resonant). It may be the first erotic thriller in history that contains no eroticism and zero thrills.
For its first 30 minutes, Deep Water holds some promise. Taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the movie opens at a decadent party where the central married couple (Ben Affleck’s Vic and Ana de Armas’ Melinda) circle each other warily. It’s quickly established that Vic is a cuckold, reduced to watching helplessly as his wife seduces a younger and blonder man. Joel (Brendan C. Miller). in front of their friends. Vic’s stoic demeanor cracks only in a private conversation with Joel, whom he informs casually, and without hesitation, that he has killed Melinda’s former lover, who has been missing for a while.
Is Vic joking to ward off another of Melinda’s many conquests? Or is he serious and warning the young man of his fate if he continues his affair? Lyne plays with this uncertainty well in the first act of the movie, never letting us know if Vic deserves our sympathy or our fear. The director is also good at hinting at the couple’s kinky nature that lays just beneath the polished, bourgeois surface. Their frequent fights, in Crate & Barrel furnished bedrooms or shiny luxury vehicles, are punctuated by sudden bursts of desire, and there’s hope that the director that brought us the fridge scene in 9 1/2 Weeks is back to his old tricks again.
After another of Melinda’s lovers is murdered, and the killer is definitively revealed to the audience, the movie quickly loses all momentum and interest in building tension, mood, and eroticism. Without spoiling too much, the plot’s mechanics are such that characters who were once established as highly intelligent (not just Affleck’s computer whiz Vic, but also Tracy Letts’ slumming screenwriter and Finn Wittrock’s entrepreneur) now have to operate as idiots to make the story’s twists and turns make sense. De Armas’ Melinda fares worse; whereas once she was mysterious and alluring in the film’s opening scenes, she’s later at various points violent, neurotic, hysterical, and heartbroken. Her emotions change from scene to scene not because of her fractured personality. but rather because of what the story needs her to be to move the plot along.
It’s not just the characters that are betrayed by the plot mechanics. The intriguing themes and atmosphere that Lyne set up so well in the beginning are tossed aside. The erotic games that the couple initiate in the beginning, which have been used as the primary hook in the film’s marketing campaign, are abandoned in favor of inexplicable scenes with Vic nursing snails in his basement. [Snails are used heavily throughout the movie for some reason, as both a stand-in for Vic’s love for his wife and as a possible murder weapon.] Plot threads exploring Vic’s morality due to his involvement in developing war drones are dropped without any further development. Melinda’s background isn’t touched upon, and her nontraditional marriage to Vic is reduced to a standard depiction of a couple that barely knows each other, let alone loves one another enough to justify later plot developments.
The script by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson fails its actors and director by prioritizing cheap shocks and a high body count at the expense of fully realizing Lyne’s introductory portrait of a marriage that is gradually undone by suspicion and obsession. Adapted from a 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, the screenplay keeps all of the famous mystery novelist’s bad tendencies (unexplained coincidences, illogical murders) without retaining any of her celebrated nuance and attention to character.
While the film’s middle act lets down its promising intro, it doesn’t quite prepare viewers for the final act twist, which turns Deep Water from a disappointing yet forgettable exercise into an unintentional comedy of errors and dumb luck. Logic has already been strained at this point, as the killer seems to get away with a lot of murders, all committed in public with people nearby, without the police noticing. A key character has a good suspicion as to who the murderer is, yet invites danger to themselves and others by encouraging more people to interact with the killer. Yet none of these transgressions ever cross the line into comedy, and threaten to make the film camp, until the last 15 minutes, which abandons any pretense of sensibility or restraint (and is noticeably different from the original novel’s ending).
The climax is a howler, a knee-slapper for the ages. It requires two characters to act so stupidly, so illogically, that one wonders if they are even the same people we were introduced to in the beginning. They are then tasked to do something I cannot reveal, but suffice to say, it has to be seen to be believed — and even then, you’re left wondering if it actually happened. It makes the film’s earlier overuse of snails seem almost witty and restrained.
Lyne is 81 years old, and spent almost 10 years developing this project. It’s a disappointing coda to an entertaining career that brought us such modern trash staples as Flashdance and Indecent Proposal. None of those films were great, but they were at least entertaining and acknowledged their own ridiculousness. CFlashdance‘s Alex was a steel welder by day and a stripper by night!) Every so often, Lyne would make a Jacob’s Ladder or an Unfaithful, films that eschewed camp and took their subject matter seriously without getting too stuffy about it.
Deep Water is his first outright failure in a nearly 50-year old career. It doesn’t have the cheap thrills and easy sensuality of a 9 1/2 Weeks, nor does it have the dramatic intensity of a Unfaithful. Instead, it has some well-directed scenes and committed performers that are betrayed by half-baked ideas, a lousy script, and an unintentionally hilarious ending. It’s not a good sign when you leave a movie like this laughing at it instead of with it.